Hate or love him, LeBron is best ever

The first basketball game I ever saw live was at the Boston Garden back in 1981 — Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers against Larry Bird and the Celtics. The second game I saw was the Celtics against the Lakers a year later.

I’ve seen a lot of basketball since. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what LeBron James has accomplished in the past seven days.

The city of Cleveland’s agonizing 52-year championship drought finally came to an end late Sunday night when the Cavaliers knocked off the Golden State Warriors, becoming the first team in NBA history to erase a 3-1 deficit in the Finals.

The task was achieved largely due to the determination and unmatchable skill of James, whose performance during the last three games of the series — all Cleveland wins, two of them on the road — could go down as the greatest three-game stretch that basketball has ever seen.

With his team’s back against the wall, down 3-1 and on the road against the winningest single-season team in history, James willed the Cavs to a Game 5 victory in Oakland, piling up 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots.

He may have been even better in Game 6, when he scored another 41 to go with eight boards, 11 assists, four steals and three blocks.

Sunday night was his worst performance of the three, and all he did was turn in the third Game 7 triple-double in Finals history.

Despite an off shooting night, James finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and three more blocks — including a chase-down swat of an Andre Iguodala layup attempt in the closing moments that will rank as one of the game’s iconic defensive plays.

What’s crazy is that James has been doing this for so long that people have almost taken it for granted.

He’s been the game’s best all-around player since at least 2006, and yet MVP voters keep coming up with reasons to give the award to someone else. During the past two years, people started to suggest that Steph Curry had become the best player in the world, an idea that James emphatically dismissed this postseason.

What makes James’ championship climb this season all the more impressive is who it came against. The Warriors won the NBA title a year ago and got even better this year, winning a record 73 games during the regular season and running a Western Conference gauntlet to reach the Finals yet again.

Feel how you like about Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but they never faced an opponent of anywhere near that caliber during their six-title run in the 1990s. Chicago never had to beat another great team to win a championship.

The NBA right now is as strong, and as top-heavy with elite teams, as it has been at any point with the possible exception of the mid-1980s, when the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers staged numerous epic battles with one another. Perhaps the Cavs and Warriors will meet again next year. Maybe Oklahoma City or San Antonio will unseat Golden State in the West.

Perhaps a new contender will emerge.

No matter who rises up, Cleveland will be in the mix yet again. James has played in the past six NBA Finals — the only non-Celtic in league history to accomplish that — and there’s no reason to expect him not to be there again a year from now.

He now has three rings at age 31, just as many as Jordan had at the same age, and he’s done it against superior competition.

Yet some people still refuse to give him his due.

James’ greatness is so routine, so consistently there, that it became largely unappreciated.

It took an unprecedented Finals comeback for most people to take notice again.

We shouldn’t take any of it for granted anymore. We’re witnessing an all-around talent the likes of which the sport has never seen and might never see again. James is a freakish athlete with an almost unfair basketball IQ to match. It’s as if Bird’s head was put on Bo Jackson’s body — if Jackson had been 6-8.

Nobody has ever played the game of basketball at this high of a level. Savor it while it’s still happening.

Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor of The Republic. He can be reached at roleary@therepublic.com.